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Iowa women's basketball: No final schedule (yet) — likely no home-court advantage — but a focused group ready for 2020

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — A schedule hasn’t been released, at least not officially, with just two weeks and change until the season tips. There’s not much Lisa Bluder hasn’t experienced in 20 years leading the Hawkeyes.

So it goes for the Iowa women’s basketball program and countless other schools across the country. As COVID-19 prepares to infiltrate the collegiate winter sports calendar, the Hawkeyes are readying for an upcoming season that is full of un-cemented elements.

It’s not ideal, especially with a fledgling unit searching for new veteran presences. Yet Bluder has been impressed with how her 2020 unit has navigated such thick uncertainty.

“It’s an unusual situation as we’ve talked about with our players,” Bluder said at media day Monday. “Not knowing who we’re going to play, when we’re going to play or where we’re going to play, it is what it is.

“We just have to be ready for everybody.”

Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder speaks to reporters during Iowa Hawkeyes women's basketball media day, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, at the Feller Club Room of Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Here’s what’s known for now. The women’s basketball season begins Nov. 25, and Iowa is trying five nonconference games plus 20 Big Ten contests. Although Bluder didn’t confirm any of the nonconference affairs, she said the hope is to schedule the three other Division I in-state schools and two others. One of those will be Western Illinois, which released its slate last week with a Dec. 22 trip to Iowa City on it.

If this were a normal year, 2020 would see the Hawkeyes host Northern Iowa and Iowa State while traveling to Drake, per yearly rotations. Scheduling the fifth nonconference game remains a work in progress.

“We’re still looking. It’s not easy,” Bluder said. “And quite honestly, the Big Ten was really late in deciding that we were going to play nonconference games. Everybody else had kind of been jumping on them.

“It’s been a little bit tough, and if we don’t, we don’t. We’ll play 24 (games) this year. But 25 is the goal.”

Compounding the anxiety is however many games Iowa gets, those inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena will likely occur without fans — or with significantly reduced capacities. This caveat is especially detrimental to Bluder’s Hawkeyes, which have ignited one of the fiercest home-court advantages in women’s college basketball. Iowa has ripped off two consecutive seasons without a home loss; its last such defeat came Jan. 28, 2018, against Nebraska.

The Hawkeyes own the second-longest active home winning streak in the women’s game, set attendance records during the 2019 NCAA Tournament and feature weekend crowds that regularly exceed 7,000.

As much as everyone is excited just to have a season, Bluder knows few to no fans is an unfortunate obstacle that must be hurdled.

“We’re worried about that,” Bluder said, “because our fan support has been so outstanding. The last two years, we’ve been in the top-10 nationally in attendance. And I am concerned because they bring a great energy to our arena.

“Having not lost here in two-and-a-half years, part of that is because we’ve had good teams. Part of that is because we have a great home-court advantage. Not having that is going to take a little bit of our energy away, and we’re going to have to find our own energy to play this year. … It sure is nice late in the game, when you have that crowd really get behind you and really drive you.”

Especially considering Iowa will trek into 2020 with a promising, but still largely unproven roster. Redshirt senior Alexis Sevillian and junior Monika Czinano anchor the Hawkeyes’ veteran leadership, while heralded point guard Caitlin Clark is an inexperienced newcomer only in principle. But the graduation of three senior starters, including reigning Big Ten player of the year Kathleen Doyle, leaves a vocal void.

How Iowa organically fills that role will dictate much about this uncertain campaign.  

“That's what I'm really missing the most right now,” Bluder said, “that emotional leadership. You know, Kathleen just wore her heart on her sleeve — and sometimes that can be a detriment — but most times it's really positive. I just think that a lot of times as a point guard a lot of people feed off of your energy, and she just brought that all the time, in practice, in games. So other people are kind of having to step up in that role.

“Again, I'm not really expecting Caitlin as a freshman to do that, but people like Kate Martin and Monika are really doing a good job with that.”    

It will take a focused group to sidestep the turbulence, both preseason and in-season, as Iowa looks to cement a fourth straight season near the top of the Big Ten.   

That much is known amid the uncertainty. 

“I couldn't ask for a better group,” Bluder said, “how they've prepared in coming to practice every day with masks and having to practice, and just being very aware when they're away from the arena how they have to be so careful to protect themselves and to protect our team. I've just been extremely proud of the young women and what they've done.”

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.